For two weeks every summer, the Folkmoot Center is a popping nightspot. Well after midnight, little crowds cluster around the exit doors, tiny clouds of smoke rising around them. Inside, in what was once the Hazelwood Elementary School Cafeteria, a bunch of Canadians — who do Chinese dances — are holding strings while other dancers jump through them to the beat of Gary Glitter’s Rock N Roll Part 2.
The manager for the Italian team, a short and dapper older gentleman, is giving a tween Guadelupean a run for his money in the leaping-over-strings department. The Finnish, though, are killing everybody.
“Oh, Finland’s got some ups,” says a Canadian in a Dr. Seuss hat, commentating the game over the loudspeaker, as a tall, blond guy leaps over the final string.
Never mind that 50 percent of the people in the room may or may not know what ‘ups’ means. Or who Gary Glitter is. Or what the person across the table from them is really saying.
At Folkmoot, the universality of creativity transcends the many and varied language barriers between the performers and musicians who gather for the annual folk festival.
This year, there are six languages and seven countries, which sometimes makes communication a challenge.
A few groups share some common languages. The Americans and Canadians have little problem communicating, the group from Guadeloupe, a Francophone island, share that language with Burundi, where French and Swahili compete for dominance.
And technology helps.
In the hallway after performances have ended, Idris, a young Guadeloupean, is trying to get his point across to Doug Garrett, a former guide who is now a volunteer and guide coordinator.
“J’ai besoin d’un badge?”
“No,” says Garrett, who speaks no French. “Spanish, but not French.”
But there is a computer, and with the helpful assistance of Google Translate, the problem is solved.
Oh right. You’ve lost your badge? asks Garrett.
Oui, replies Idris.
OK, come back in an hour and we’ll have one ready.
Such exchanges force the conversants to be linguistically innovative.
In one overheard exchange, the simple question ‘what’s the weather like in your country?’ was broached. It becomes less simple, however, when one party doesn’t know the word ‘weather.’ So what’s another way to express the concept of weather?
But backstage at the performances and in downtime around the Folkmoot Friendship Center, the common languages — dance and music — engender camaraderie.
Under the awnings behind The Stompin’ Ground in Maggie Valley, the Finns and Canadians exchanged steps while awaiting their turn with the crowd inside.
Later that night, the Croatians shared their moves with everyone as the crowd pivoted haltingly around the room, the Croatian women practicing their signature keening shout, something akin to an extremely high-pitched war cry.
Flora Gammon said it has always been this way. Leader of the International Band and long-time Folkmoot volunteer, she says dance bringing everyone together has been a long-running theme with the festival.
“Once we had a group from Spain, the Basques, that were here, and they were the most standoffish group I’ve ever seen in my life,” says Gammon. “So we were all saying ‘Let's teach each other dances.’ And it came my turn to teach an American dance, and I said, well, I'll teach you the hokey pokey. I don’t know what it is about the hokey pokey that in the Basque language seems to make them all happy, but they were smiling and communicating with everybody and having a great time.”
This year, there are no standoffish groups. From Italy to Canada and every group in between, they may not speak the same language, but they seem to understand each other just fine.